I had earlier described St Petersburg as the flamboyant European alter ego of Russia and the moment you step into the city you will know why I said so. It is in stark contrast to the mighty grey world of Moscow though in no way do I call Moscow less travel worthy. Built on the grand vision of the Russian Tzar Peter the Great in 1703, and often called the Venice of the North (although Tsar Peter is said to have been smitten by Holland), St Petersburg is an amalgamation of Russian Imperialism and European Neoclassicism. Its a vivacious city just waiting to bewitch you with its charm. I recommend it as a my Top City for 2018.
How to get there
Well connected with Moscow through rail with several Sapsan routes through the day which take about 4 hours or the more economical overnight trains. We took the 7.40 am Sapsan from Moscow Leningradsky station to St Petersburg which brought us to this magnificent city at 11.40 am. If you are touring Finland first, you could take the high speed Allegro into SPB as well.
Where to stay
We were traveling as a family of five and hence had chosen apartments to hotels. Our apartment was on Malaya Morskaya which turned out to be an excellent location – stones throw from the Admiralteiskaya Metro station, few hundred metres from the famed Hermitage, St Isaac’s Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral and walking distance to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. There was a dainty cafe, Bushe, right opposite and awesome shops and restaurants all around.
Day 1 of St Petersburg
Kazan Cathedral (from the outside) – Church of Our Saviour – Palace Square – Alexadrovsky Sad – St Isaac’s Cathedral
Almost immediately after we arrived into our apartment, we started in the quest of the magnificent Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, with Google maps leading the way as is customary. Wifi may be a problem and with fewer signs in English it is always good to have some sort of an internet connection on you. We had bought a Tele2 SIM at Moscow airport and were hotspotting it onto our mobiles. So after a few minutes of confused walking and 15 mins of time spent at an ATM to withdraw money from my Indian ATM card, we finally saw a glimpse of the magnificent church.
We had passed the Kazan Catehdral on our right but kept it for another day, a day which never really came. But then I am happy for have atleast seen it from the outside. Anyway, to describe the moment when I first saw the Church of Our Saviour, I was as excited as I was when I had first seen the Eiffel.
I had researched about it so often during the trip planning that it felt as if I had already seen it but then when I finally saw it in flesh and blood, whatever-remains-of-the-pun intended, I knew why it was the single most amazing thing to see in SPB. I think it was the angle that made all the difference – the canal to the left, a long narrow paved street lined with shops to the right and in the middle and right at the end was the brick colored multi-hued domes structure. If you are approaching the church from Nevsky Avenue, you will need to go around it to find the ticket counter and the entrance. A short queue later we found ourselves inside the dazzling glory of Russian churches. This was our first up close an personal with a Russian church and oh boy I could very well shout at the top of my voice and say that All that Glitters is definitely Gold.
After about 30 mins of that bedazzling experience, we started our hunt for lunch and came across this amazing restaurant specializing in Georgian cuisine. I have never been to Georgia and don’t really how Georgian food ought to taste, but the food at the ChaCha was really good.
We then walked towards the Hermitage in hope of getting in before the clock struck 5pm to be able to spend about an hour atleast inside the museum. But a race against time served no one good ever, or did it? Cinderella lost one of the pair of her crystal shoes and me and my sister lost sight of our parents and my husband. And so we waited by the Hermitage entrance straining our eyes across the Palace Square to see if we could spot the rest of our family. With the new mobile number not saved to either our memory or the phones memory and obviously no internet thats the best we could do. 20 excruciating minutes passed when we suddenly noticed our phones tethering to the hotspot and we new atleast my husband was nearby – technology can do strange things when you least expect it to! After quick admonishments from both parties, we realised that we had gone past the time to enter the Museum and the Winter Palace but figured that the following day being a Wednesday, the Museum would be open till 2100 hrs. After a quick coffee, we headed towards our ultimate destination for the day – St Isaac’s cathedral.
We walked past the Alexandrvosky Sad (or the Alexander Garden) and reached the St. Isaac’s Cathedral. You could choose to spend some time at the garden too with its beautiful fountain and a host of statues. Once inside the cathedral, it was once again a dazzling glittering show of gold covered ceilings and magnificent artwork.
By the time we stepped out of St Isaac’s it was nearing 7pm but the sky had turned dark with clouds (it was August and SPB had just come out if its ‘White Nights‘ phase, so there was daylight till about 11pm). Within moments it started raining heavily and we permuted our way into 3 umbrellas and ran our way back the few hundred meters to our apartments.
Day 2 of St Petersburg
Peter & Paul Fortress – Peterhof – Hermitage Museum & Winter Palace
We woke up the 2nd morning again to a gloomy sky followed by some heavy downpour. But we had too many important places to visit so just when the rain began to hold up a little we Ubered to our first stop for the day – the Peter & Paul fortress, situated on a small island on the Neva river. We took our time to look around the Cathedral and then walked around the fortress. There were ticketed displays on medieval torture techniques which I gleefully traded for the beautiful views of the Neva river.
We then, once again, Ubered our way to the pier near the Hermitage to get to the hydrofoil to Peterhof. There are majorly 2 ways to reach Peterhof from SPB – one via the hydrofoil which take about 30 mins one way and sets you back by about 700 RUB one way and 1300 RUB return or via the minibus that leave from multiple areas in the city (refer the website Peterhof bus route). It can take anywhere between 1 – 1.5 hrs and will cost you around 100 RUB. We took the hydrofoil because it seemed the fastest and the least hassle free and were walking in the splendid lower park of Peterhof within 45 mins of reaching the pier. You can pretty much spend the entire day in Peterhof if you so wish to, but given that we only had a few hours we literally hit the ground running. You will find many comparing it with the Palace and gardens of Versailles and I have been to Versailles many years back and with whatever faint memory I have of Versailles I would say Peterhof is much grander. After spending a few hours at Peterhof, we took the hydrofoil (there is one every half hour and ensure to get into the same company’s boat for which you have the ticket) across the Gulf of Finland into mainland St Petersburg.
After some quick lunching near the Hermitage where there were dozens of food trucks lined up, we headed to the final destination of the evening. Tip: If you have a credit card on you then buy tickets at the automated ticket kiosks near the entrance of the Museum – this way you can enter the Museum premises directly without having to wait in a queue outside and also save time at the ticket counters inside.
The State Heritage Museum, found in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great, has over 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. Apart from them, the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, Storage Facility at Staraya Derevnya and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building are also part of the museum.
It will take you atleast 3 hrs to even glide through the Museum, manifestly the 2nd largest museum in the world, so plan your visit accordingly. Don;t forget to pick up the map after the ticket counters which will help you navigate through the arty labyrinths of the museum complex.
On Day 3, we Yandexed into the Finlyandsky railway station to hop into the high speed Allegro train that would take us to Helsinki, our next destination. This is the station where Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland on 16 April 1917, ahead of the October Revolution, an era which changed the course of Russian history. There is a statue of Lenin near the entrance commemorating this.